Dolores Park, March 16, 2020, 2:43 p.m. Photo by Emma Silvers

Six years ago, a neighbor slapped five crisp $20 bills in Ral Lopshire’s hand, dropped her off at the airport, and put her on a plane to San Francisco. 

It was supposed to be a lunch date. It was not. 

Rather, it was an meticulously planned escape orchestrated by Lopshire’s brother to extract her from an abusive relationship, extract her from the state of Arizona, and send her west to San Francisco — the city where she’d always wanted to be. 

“When I arrived in San Francisco, I felt like I had gained everything, even though I was here with $100 and nowhere to go,” she says. “And no food either. But I still felt like I had gained something so much more.” 

She’s gone now. Like so many others, Lopshire is now a former San Franciscan. 

There is a narrative that the pandemic will drive the obnoxious, wealthy arrivistes out of this city — a better tomorrow that looks, oddly, like yesterday. 

Well, maybe. The search for a silver lining in these times is understandable. But Covid is not the fire that purifies. Lots of people have been burned.

Certainly, there are some loudmouth VCs decamping for Miami (a city with all the government corruption and ineptitude of San Francisco, with the added bonuses of insane weather, flying cockroaches, a looming ecological catastrophe and loafers with no socks). Certainly there are some tobacco company bossmen fleeing San Francisco, in the name of security, for Dallas (a city with a violent crime rate that far exceeds San Francisco’s).

Yet despite what you may have read or seen on TV, California’s out-migration has not increased significantly. But San Francisco’s has. And it’s certainly not all entitled tech bros, acting with agency.

You read trend stories about indignant captains of industry leaving these parts for out-of-state, even though there’s no trend here to speak of. You didn’t read about Lopshire, though — a 29-year-old artist and musician who lost her service-industry job in a cosmetics store, lost her housing, and was economically banished from this city.

Maybe we’ve become inured to that story because it’s so commonplace. This was happening to retail workers and housecleaners and cooks and servers and drivers every day, well before the pandemic. And, now that the pandemic is upon us, it’s hard to imagine that only the well-off and well-placed will leave — and choose to leave. It’s hard to imagine that the only people departing San Francisco are affluent and have all the options.  

And it’s hard to imagine that, in the coming years, the more fortunate newcomers who move here won’t be greatly advantaged over the less fortunate; San Francisco’s rents have plummeted but they’re still the nation’s highest.

A news outlet must decide whose stories it wishes to tell. 

March 17 marks the one-year anniversary of the multi-county health order that changed life in this and so many cities as we know it. Mission Local has covered it from the beginning and the bottom up and, in the coming days and weeks, you’ll be reading stories where we check back in on the people and businesses we introduced you to over the past 12 painful months. 

We’ll start today by meeting not the privileged who choose to leave San Francisco because it no longer suits them, but people who have experienced real hardships — and fought, successfully or not, to stay. 

We’ll start with stories of real individuals. Not bogus trend stories. 

We’ll start with Ral Lopshire. 

Ral Lopshire, in a recent photo taken downtown.

There’s “homeless,” Lopshire explains, and there’s “homeless homeless.” 

One day after Thanksgiving, during the height of the pandemic, all the money was gone. There were no more cheap motels or sleeping in a car or nights on the couch of a friend or kindly Craigslist stranger. She was homeless homeless. 

It was sleepless nights sitting up against a building on the cold pavement — “and nobody understands how cold it really does get at like 3 a.m.” — and hungry days of lifting a loaf of bread from the store, a la Jean Valjean. 

Lopshire lost her job in the cosmetics store in March. She was out of money by May. In November, she left her apartment in the Sunset near McCoppin Square; she claims her roommates had a cavalier attitude toward socializing and partying during the pandemic. 

In a series of unfortunate events, Lopshire says she moved half of her belongings to a new place inhabited by a pair of middle-aged women — she planned to pay the rent with unemployment money — then returned to the Sunset to find new locks on the doors. Attempts to retrieve her property, she says, resulted in an ex-roommate’s boyfriend threatening her off the premises with a knife. 

This story, she says, unsettled her new roommates. They aborted the nascent living arrangement and Lopshire now found herself out on the streets with half her possessions at one former home and half at another. 

After sleeping rough in nicer parts of town — the Castro, Nob Hill — she eventually found her way to a women’s homeless shelter. It was a poignant moment. She had stayed in this shelter during her early days in San Francisco. When she found housing and work, she returned here as a volunteer. And now she was back, sleeping on a mat on the floor during a 10-day quarantine period. 

She spent Christmas in the shelter. It was cold. It was rainy. She wore a mask 24 hours a day, and even in her sleep; the only time it was taken off was to eat or shower. 

The staff did what it could to cheer up the few women spaced out in the building on Christmas Day: “They made it really nice. They made a nice dinner. But I just thought, ‘I never want to do this again.’” 

That remains to be seen. But after so much went wrong in 2020, the present year has started well. Staffers at the West Side Tenants Association established a GoFundMe for Lopshire. It didn’t raise $55,492, like the guy who wanted 10 bucks for potato salad, but the $670 was a life-changer. She found a room for $580 in West Oakland. She moved in January. 

The ins, outs, and what-have-yous of Lopshire’s story aren’t typical — but a 29-year-old San Franciscan being priced out of the city and moving to Oakland most certainly is: This was commonplace before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and all but certainly after it. Your humble narrator’s parents, aged 29, decamped from San Francisco to Oakland in search of more affordable housing — in 1976. 

Among San Franciscans filing a change of address form with the post office between March and November of last year, a plurality ended up in Alameda County. 

Lopshire misses San Francisco. She still doesn’t know her way around Oakland. But, truth be told, there are times when it’s not so bad to get lost and find something new. She’s interviewing for jobs again. She’s taking junior college classes. “Things,” she says, “are falling into place.” 

But in a different place.

Reina Tello, as seen on Twin Peaks.

Gentrification, like the bite of a komodo dragon, can take years to take its toll. 

It may take a great while to fully gauge the effects of the pandemic on San Francisco’s demographics, after entire industries employing working-class people either collapsed or went dormant. While pandemic-related tenant protections in this city are strong, lots of tenants, when unable to pay the rent, simply leave.  

So, Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy — “gradually, then suddenly” — works regarding gentrification, too. Displacement often takes time. There’s no shortage of malfeasant landlords and callous public housing agencies. But a lot of it simply involves people leaving, through the years: People leave for work reasons and for family reasons — the sorts of conditions a recession and pandemic accelerate and exacerbate. San Francisco is a hell of a town, but not everyone wants to make living here the end-all and be-all of their existence, especially if work is scarce, money is scarce, and opportunities arise elsewhere. 

All of this is happening here. Gradually, then suddenly.

Reina Tello has experience with both bankruptcy and gentrification. She has personally filed for bankruptcy six times. It was her father’s wish to die in his own home in Bayview. And, for years, the family fought off the bank to keep him there. 

In 2018, Jesse Tello died. Not long thereafter, more than two dozen sheriff’s deputies showed up to evict the women and children he left behind.

Tello, her mother, her brother, her sister, and her two grade-school-aged children moved into one room in a cousin’s house. They spread a pair of foam mattress-toppers on the floor and slept in a pile. 

At times, Tello, now 38, didn’t even come home. She worked as a community organizer at Poder and at a grocery store and, rather than wake everyone up, she simply slept in her car in a Safeway parking lot. In the morning she’d start the car, pick up her daughters, take them to school, go to her jobs, and do it all again. 

Why do this? Why sacrifice so much to stay in a city that makes itself so hard to stay in? 

“You know,” Tello says with a laugh, “you are not the first person to ask me that. And my answer has changed through the years. First, I was angry. I have every right to be here. Just like everybody has every right to be here. But now — have you ever gone on a vacation but found yourself homesick? You enjoy where you’re at, but it doesn’t fulfill you like when you’re at home? San Francisco is that for me. It’s a place where I can be myself.” 

Tello, lower right, is pictured in a March 2000 Examiner article about the Mission High mock trial team.

San Francisco, however, is an exhausting place to call home. Even if you don’t have six bankruptcies on your record. As Tello does. And yet, by some alchemy, her family landed a rental home in Visitacion Valley in January. Tello, her mother, her brother, and her daughters have a home in San Francisco. The rent is $3,200 a month. Only Tello and her mother are working right now, and the house eats up most of their money.

Almost as soon as they moved in, the entire family tested positive for Covid. While she was in isolation, Tello’s truck was impounded. And, in recent days, she was shocked to find that her hair is falling out in clumps — which may be a lingering symptom of the disease, and may be a result of stress, or may be all of the above. It’s hard to say.

And yet, Tello remains. The statistics in the coming years do not necessarily augur well for hard-working city natives such as her. But Tello is not a statistic. She’s a San Franciscan.

And this is the case despite the hardships mounting. Gradually, then suddenly. 

“I hope and I pray every single day that this is just a hard spot,” she says, speaking about her family — but, when you think about it, so many San Francisco families. 

“And we’re going to recover from this.” 

Stories recounting our pandemic year will appear in Mission Local throughout March. 

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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44 Comments

  1. If the goal is to take an enlightened view of who suffers due to San Francisco’s very real housing crisis, it might be worthwhile to tell the stories of people priced out from the East Bay because their homes were our affordable housing policy. At what point do we stop taking Calvin Welch, CCHO, and the other architects of this suffering seriously?

  2. I was born in old st.marys hosp.on Valencia st. In 1957, the only time I left was to go to the army or prison, I always came back.
    I grew up in the mission when it was mostly Irish, I loved the melting pot, and all the mom and pop businesses, I use to hang in the fillmore, before redevelopment, with its rib shacks and after hour juke joints, where, as long as you didn’t act a fool, you could come back and get your fill- some- mo,…the fillmore west and winterland…I have my memories. I have 2 kids , and if I prayed, it would be for better times. For them, but like I said if I prayed, I dont,

    1. Those sad poor 429,000 souls that are forced to live in Oakland. Lets tax the rich to send them all, to …. San Francisco.

  3. Six years ago, Ms. Lopshire left Arizona for San Francisco, “a place she’d always wanted to be.” She arrived with “a hundred dollars and nowhere to go.” She moved into a women’s homeless shelter. A quick search of today’s Arizona rental market shows one bedrooms available for under three hundred, well within reach of even minimum wage.
    Wanting things is to be human. Accepting that not all our wants will be fulfilled is to be a responsible adult. Dependency is the inevitable default of migrating to one of the most expensive cities on earth without a plan for self sufficiency. “It takes a village” but villages require give as well as take. Income inequality must be addressed but in the meantime is it too much to ask the able- bodied to do all that they can not to impose upon others to meet their basic needs? Many want to be in San Francisco. How many need to be?

    1. “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    2. Chris, you nailed it. What possesses dirt poor people to think that all their problems will magically vanish if only they relocate to San Francisco? It seems like that, for decades at least, anyone who struggled to live some place else would want to live in SF where, in their fantasies, their inadequacies would not matter?

      I have always been proud of the fact that I could, if needed, live anywhere. Alaska or Florida. Maine or Nevada. If instead I thought to myself: “There is only one place I can live and that is SF – anywhere else and I will perish”, I would probably choose perishing. That is no way to live.

      The last decade or two have been great precisely because that negative attitude changed. Instead of people moving here from a position of weakness, they came here from a position of strength. I myself came to SF for work, and not because it is the world capital of bad art and people who never grow up.

      As the old saying has it, SF’ers are “too dumb for NY and too ugly for LA”. The preciousness and faux exceptionalism has to go, and good riddance to it. Not everyone can afford to live in the world’s favorite city.

      1. Beautifully written Chris! Tom there are many advantages to being in the San Francisco, besides the non-extreme weather. An especially important draw are the resources and services available, (money, food, shelter, medical). Due to the opportunities that are offer, many people and families have succeeded and lead very productive lives. As a native San Franciscan (born here), I am immensely proud. I have spent 20 years of my career working with individuals challenged with mental health and drug addiction. In many ways putting others before myself, when I could have focused on my own personal gains. Many in this field are darn near homeless themselves, except for those on an executive level. Our attitude and acceptance towards homelessness, mental illness; also creates a more comfortable environment. However, we have now become enablers. I say this because the majority of those who do not raise out of homelessness, have mental, emotional and substance abuse issues and it is up to them the choices they make. I personally am tired of people showing up in a crisis and then blaming others. Recovery starts with taking responsibility. Onnyx

        1. onyxx, you are making my point for me. If we have people moving to SF just because of our generous welfare provisions then we are going to continue to attract people who consume wealth. Meanwhile the people who create wealth and constitute the taxbase will leave.

          Do that for long enough and SF becomes Detroit.

    3. She left an abusive boyfriend. The move was also practical, to get her out of a bad situation. She had her ducks in a row: she found a job, and a place to live. Most likely neither of those would have been lost if the pandemic didn’t happen. The point of this article is how easy it is for people without a huge net beneath them to stumble, especially during a pandemic. Have a heart.

      1. Kylo,

        I get that she had to move. My question was why she moved to the most expensive city in the US, with the possible exception of Aspen?

        1. Kylo, according to her she has unemployment. That’s why perhaps she is not a good example. However your point is well taken. Like the landlords in their late years getting stiffed rent, no time in life to rebound.

  4. When you see a story about people “forced” out of SF I usually expect that they were compelled somehow to move hundreds or even thousands of miles away. West Oakland is as close to downtown SF as Ocean Beach and MUCH cheaper to travel in from!

    And why do you assume that wealthy people are “obnoxious”? Is that the tolerance that the Mission and SF are allegedly famed for?

    1. Tom — 

      You seem confused. The point you’re referring to is a hypothetical. It is possible for a writer to refer to two or perhaps even three points of view while discussing subjects without espousing them as his gospel truth.

      Thanks for writing.

      JE

  5. Hey not sure why I found this story a bit disturbing. San Francisco is not Emerald City or maybe it is. However, what did Dorthey and friends find out when they got there. I tired of stories like these, nor do I fill she was a victim. She came homeless and left homeless no gain no loss. She told her story to new roommates, and it worked against her. They were uncomfortable with her and perhaps the company she kept. It is clear to me, she had many other problems, that only she could change. The police would have made the people open the door and return her belongings. Oh, and then the new roomies screwed her too! What happen to her unemployment checks with the stimulus she should be ay okay. Oh boohoho! Yet it is PC to hold in contempt and “hate” techies!
    Onnyx

    It also sounds has if her neighbor wanted to get rid of her,(the problem). San Francisco can not bear the total responsibility of homelessness. Most are not from San Francisco or the Bay Area for that matter.

    1. I’ll bet you can’t even spell “judgmental.”

      Oh. Gave it away.

      JE

      1. Oh Joe
        When you have nothing intelligent to say, don’t go low, it’s very unbecoming. You didn’t like my response, so you attacked me personally. I realize if ignorance can not prevail, it will surely seek to destroy.
        Onnyx

        1. You presumptuously inferred negative things about someone you’ve never met and only knew through *my* interviews and felt the need to share your ignorant harangue. So don’t start talking to me about “going low.”

          JE

          1. .

            If ignorance cannot rule, it will seek to destroy! You are assuming we have never me! Everything I stated was fact, except the neighbor getting rid of her. It is also based on 15 years of experience. Did you refer her to the renters’ board or other resources? Did you tell her what happened was illegal eviction at perhaps both premises? Did you give her a couch to sleep on? She clearly has issues with making healthy decisions, which is why she was, according to her, in another abusive relationship. However, I have compassion for you and wish you the best. I am surprised a storyteller would not promote discussion if they were proud of their work. It is clear your responses are made in fear. My comments were not directed at you. I have commented you on stories in the past, nor was I inferring that your reporting, (storytelling), was bad! Relax!! P.S. Feel free to find error in my writing, I am notorious for not proof reading, yet still managed to pay off my home in San Francisco and help others. You get my point!

            Feeling sorry has never fixed a thing in the world and never will!

          2. *( If ignorance cannot rule, it will seek to destroy! You are assuming we have never met!)

  6. I love this piece! The writing and stories are amazing. Thank you for keeping good journalism alive!

  7. If you don’t understand the draw of San Francisco for these people and the desire to stay under any circumstances then maybe you don’t belong here.

  8. I don’t know, if she left the apartment and people changed locks, maybe there is more to the story. not sure how to blame SF rents in this case…

    1. Maybe more to the story but it’s dog eat cat in the housing game.

      Master tenants take a new roommate, do crazy stuff to force the roommate out, change the locks and don’t give the security deposit back. Repeat. Knew someone who made a tidy side hustle out this. Sociopathic scumbag.

      Roommates arrive all nice and friendly then decide taking up a meth habit is a good idea. Can’t get rid of them no how cause – you know.

      It is brutal out there.

      Funny thing though.
      Folks from the south ride death trains, death SUV’s and survive general mayhem to make it here. Yes – they are most definitely represented in the homeless numbers and struggle mightily with housing issues but it seems most all of them are out there working hard to stay here. On the flip side – there sure are a lot of ambulatory white working age males lolling about the streets in need of free “services”.

  9. I feel bad for the poeple mentioned in the article. This might be an unpopular opinion, but their actions seem to be irresponsible. San Francisco is expensive, no doubts about it. Poeple who make more than a 100K a year choose to leave the Bay Area to build a better life else where. But if you choose to come here working minimum wage jobs and or jobs with unstable income, and then complain about how expensive the city is…I feel like its very hard to sympathize. No one is forcing you to live the the Bay Area.

    In the example above, Tello family is now renting a $3200 house for her family and only her and her mother is able to pay for rent. They pay most of their income to rent. It is a choice to rent that house and they entered into an agreement to pay that amount. Now it seems like they all contracted covid. Unfortunate for them, but now they can claim a COVID hardship and not get evicted for nonpayment. This will leave the landlord with the bill for many months. Unfair for landlords everywhere. Landlords are the only industry forced to give a service without any compensation. You don’t see grocery stores give away food.

    Housing in SF is expensive, but its also a choice to live here. As harsh as it sounds. They can pick up their family and move to other parts of California or even other states where their income can bring them more value.

    1. A caste society is not good for democracy. Norms ensuring a robust middle class makes for a better City and Country. Even for folks with an average sensibility and bad taste in lovers. Encouraging narcissism and opportunism in the so called best and brightest will give you what we have now. And worse to come.

  10. Thanks Joe, I haven’t viewed comments recently so I forgot how nasty and heartless folks are. Keep up the great reporting.

  11. It is more than simple gentrification My dear and humble narrator: in 1976, when your family relocated, a head of household doing a regular job could still have a middle class life in SF if they bought their house in say 1966. But the wages were as much a factor as any gentrification. In 1977 to 1980 I was a teenager working as a night cook in a local nightclub. I made 5 dollars an hour. Believe it or not that was a lot of money for someone right out of high school. Minimum wage in some states is not much better now. 40 years on. I could afford an apartment with a room mate, a car, college classes and even invested in a 1k CD The coke and the late nights were fun but rough. I work for the Costa Nostra now too. CCSF.

    1. I agree with you but you can’t get everything into every article. You could afford rent on a low-paying job, or buy a house with a couple years’ salary. But those days are long gone. I don’t foresee their return no matter how many tech bros exit en masse.

      JE

  12. Although I feel bad for the people mentioned in this story, it is hard to feel sympathetic. San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live. This is a fact. But it is also a choice to live here. You have to accept the fact that it is expensive and be able to bear the responsibility. Ms. Lopshire moved to San Francisco with $100 and no real stable job. I think doing this by itself is irresponsible.

    San Francisco has a lot of social welfare programs, which I think is great. But it also attracts a lot of homeless people from all over California. Then you have people blaming San Francisco for failing residents and the increasing homeless population. Well it appears that the people who need the welfare aren’t even from San Francisco in the first place. Just because you want to live somewhere or feel like you belong here, doesn’t mean you should live there from a logical standpoint.

    This article makes it seem like the people who choose to leave the city are privileged because the city no longer suits them, and then give these 2 examples of struggling families who want to stay in the city that they can’t afford. Like I said, it is a choice to live here. The people who leave here do so because they know San Francisco is expensive and feel like their salary can go farther in another place. Staying in San Francisco, knowing you can’t afford it and get into debt is probably the most irresponsible thing you can do.

    And there has to be more to Ms. Lopshire roommate story. San Francisco has one of the most strict tenant laws, which is unfair for a lot of landlords during this pandemic. But her previous roommates cannot just lock out Ms. Lopshire. There is a legal process to evict. And “ex-roommate’s boyfriend threatening her off the premise with a knife”, even better. She could have made a police report that would help her case. She could have easily called the cops and told them to open the door. Because she didn’t, there has to be more to the story that we aren’t told.

    And if she was rejected by the second couple of middle aged women, maybe they thought it was a better idea not to let a stranger in their house. They probably don’t want to inherit a problem housemate. But of course we would never know the real story, only the victim’s side.

    And then ended up staying in the women’s shelter, which we were told she stayed at when she first got to the city. I am not trying to be harsh, but she came to San Francisco homeless, and left homeless as well. And the story even ended up her moving to Oakland. Which in my opinion, you probably get a better deal anyways.

    Then you have Ms. Tello family. She filed for bankruptcy SIX times and then the article makes a point that the bank is going to take back her father’s house. This is sad, but that’s how housing works. You BUY a house and have to make payments on it. Just because you live there, doesn’t make it YOUR house. It will be YOUR house when you finish paying the mortgage they took out. But before then, its the banks property. That’s the sad reality.

    This is also the issue with San Francisco rent laws. Renters think because they have their stuff somewhere, it is their house. Just because there is an eviction moratorium they think they can stop paying rent, knowing they can’t get evicted. Very entitled thinking.

    Now Ms. Tello rents a $3200 and says she spends most of her money on rent. This is also a choice. Now she says the whole family got COVID. Now she will be behind on rent, and have rental debt. Which the landlord will probably eat the bill for. Yes she says she has a “right” to live in San Francisco. But the banks also have a “right” to take back the house they stopped paying for. The Landlord has a “right” for rent payment for the housing service he provides.

    In the end, everyone has a right to make their own choices. But be responsible for your choices. It’s hard to sympathize with people who make these choices and complain about how hard it is.

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